Combustible Celluloid
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With: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Robert Forster, Barbara L. Southern, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, Michael Ontkean, Patricia Hastie
Written by: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Directed by: Alexander Payne
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including some sexual references
Running Time: 115
Date: 09/02/2011

The Descendants (2011)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Coma Over

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 2004, Alexander Payne's Sideways became the year's critical darling, to the point that many were sick of reading about it. A.O. Scott wrote a now-famous essay in the New York Times arguing that so many critics liked it because they personally identified with the movie's schlubby hero, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti.

As for me, I loved Sideways, though I was even fonder of Million Dollar Baby, the movie that eventually edged ahead and won the Oscar for Best Picture. (And I liked Before Sunset better than both.) I don't think I look much like Paul Giamatti, and I'm not sure how much I identify with him. But all these qualifiers aside, Payne's new movie, his first in seven years, isn't nearly as good.

While Sideways seamlessly wove humor and sadness into all its characters, The Descendants is not so seamless. It deals with three big and complex life events, and none of them ever seem balanced in an emotionally believable way. It's as if the movie takes turns with these three events, setting aside any two to concentrate on a third.

George Clooney stars as Matt King, a lawyer living on Hawaii. His narration informs us right away that Hawaii is not much of a paradise if it's part of your daily grind. Payne shows us a Hawaii that's overcast and riddled with ugly old white guys in shorts. (Like too many movies these days, the narration is lazily used to open the movie, and is then dropped for the rest of it.)

Matt is the head of a trust that owns a huge parcel of virgin Hawaiian land; he's a descendant of a Hawaiian princess. His cousins are co-owners, and to avoid an upcoming, inevitable tangle of red tape and paperwork, they are deciding to sell. Meanwhile, Matt's wife has fallen into a coma after a boating accident; she may never recover. Finally, Matt learns that his wife was having an affair with a cheesy real estate salesman (Matthew Lillard), and that she had fallen in love with him.

I have no idea how I would react in such a situation, but it seems as if Matt is far more crushed over the news that he has been cheated on, than the fact that his wife is dying. And both of these issues are neatly, temporarily wiped away whenever Matt is thinking about his land deal; this is also a hot-button issue, since most of the locals don't want him to sell.

Payne, who is working for the first time without his co-screenwriter Jim Taylor, diffuses this drama with the appearance of Matt's oldest daughter, the troubled teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). She, in turn, invites a lunkheaded surfer dude, Sid (Nick Krause), to come along as her support. Matt's younger daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), is cheerfully oblivious to all the drama. Alexandra gives her father reality checks, and Sid provides the occasional laid-back wisdom, as well as clueless one-liners. Scottie provides the movie's spunk, such as flipping the bird to annoying adults.

Clooney will receive a lot of acclaim for this performance, and he's without a doubt a terrific actor and a big star. But he doesn't seem to know what to do here on a large scale. He deals with a whole slew of big emotions, but they're not sorted out or made clear moment by moment. Young Woodley does him one better, arguably, but only because her character is a good deal less conflicted and more well-defined.

Certainly, bits and pieces of the movie work all by themselves. Scenes play out with intelligence and grace and an appealingly bittersweet mood. But the whole package, put together, is awfully disjointed. Clooney does some heavy hitting to pull things together in the final stretch: inviting friends over to explain that his wife is not going to survive, and then his final goodbye to her, and for many viewers it may be enough. However, for me, I would have preferred Payne to dig a little deeper into this material. He needed to find the humor inside this tragedy, and not try to place the humor around the tragedy.

I definitely feel for Matt and his situation, and my heart goes out to Payne, who has undoubtedly had troubles of his own, not getting to make a movie for seven years. But Payne has the ability to make something as rich and as joyous as Sideways, and The Descendants is not it.

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